Why doesn’t American political culture understand the power of direct action campaigns?

It’s time to recover what we once knew: Direct action campaigns are the engine that power movements past state power and right-wing violence.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

Since 2016, I’ve been book touring in dozens of states — first with “Viking Economics” and then with “How We Win.” I’ve done events in hundreds of bookstores, universities, and civic and religious spaces. Time and time again, I get the same kind of question, and my puzzlement has only grown.

Just last month, at a crowded meeting sponsored by 350.org in Madison, Wisconsin, dozens of people were asking me how they can make their work for justice more effective. One person recalled how the move of Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 to take away public workers’ rights was met by an immense outpouring of Wisconsin citizen rage. Direct action filled the capital and paralyzed the government.

“That was nonviolent protest, right? And it disrupted everything — even Democratic legislators traveled out of the state to prevent the Republicans from taking away the rights of state workers. And still, the nonviolent struggle failed!”

“On the contrary,” I countered, remembering that I had been in Madison at a crucial moment for consultations, along with organizer Daniel Hunter. “The nonviolent campaign was deliberately dropped. Despite our advice, the leadership shifted strategies, going instead for a recall election, which they lost.”

Continuing to explain, I said, “The Democratic leadership and some labor allies believed that the ballot box is superior to what was actually working. It wasn’t the nonviolent campaigning that failed — it was interrupted. It’s the premature switch to an electoral strategy that failed.”

At another recent event, in a Pennsylvania bookstore, I was challenged by some women deeply disappointed by the demise of Occupy in Harrisburg. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street in 2011, their city’s Occupy action became a dramatic presence. “If nonviolent action is so powerful, why didn’t that work?” the activists asked.

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George Lakey co-founded Earth Quaker Action Group which just won its five-year campaign to force a major U.S. bank to give up financing mountaintop removal coal mining. Along with college teaching he has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.

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